Friday, May 25, 2012


Photo courtesy of SMPD
One afternoon, while driving in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, I rounded the corner of a twisting street to come face to face with a coyote.  I stared at him through the car window, and he stared back, frozen in intensity.  He was not afraid; he was gauging his chances of flight or fight.  Quite suddenly, he decided he’d flee today, and he loped down a nearby driveway and into the bushes leading to the home’s backyard.  I could only hope there were no kids playing somewhere close, or a small dog or cat out for an afternoon stroll.

On another late afternoon drive in the same area, I came upon several deer in the roadway.  They calmly looked at me in my car, completely unafraid.  I sat and watched them graze on either side of the roadway, until they disappeared down a hill.

Once, up late reading and writing on a summer night, I heard a commotion in my fenced-in and vine-covered backyard.  I came out with a flashlight and saw nothing amiss on the patio.  Upon shining the beam up into the trees, I saw a constellation of twinkling yellow lights.  They were not stars but eyes.  I counted at least a dozen tree rats using the branches as a rodent expressway to the fruit trees in the yards up and down the block.  One of them eventually found my car engine and made a nest in a wheel well to catch some residual warmth.  I have also seen possums back there, including one juvenile who had obviously fallen from the trees.  The mother sat on a thick limb directly over the patio, waiting for me to disappear so she could mount a rescue.

Driving home late at night in my neighborhood, I have slammed on the brakes for a family of raccoons living in a storm drain.  A few weeks later, walking after dark, I passed the spot and heard wicked growling and thrashing in the bushes.  The mother raccoon was not happy that I had invaded her space.

Black bear tranquilized in Glendale
(Raul Roa/Glendale News Press) 

I tell these stories not because they are unique, but because in Los Angeles, they are commonplace, everyday occurrences.  And if you talk to people long enough, you will hear far more frightening encounters with wildlife than my rather pedantic tales.  I know people who have watched their small dogs torn to pieces by coyotes.  Blackbears make regular appearances in urban neighborhoods to swim in pools and eat from garbage cans.  Joggers and hikers have been attacked by mountain lions in the hills around the city.  And that brings me to the 75-100 poundmountain lion who decided to take an early morning stroll in downtown Santa Monica just a few blocks from the beach.  The animal paid for his indiscretion with his life.

According to an article in the Santa Monica Patch, this two-year old mountain lion would have died anyway, even if he was successfully tranquilized and transported back into the mountains.  Reporter Jenna Chandler quotes Jeff Sikich of the National Parks Service who told her that “Nearly every one of the handful of mountain lions of the same age tracked by the park service since 2002 in the Santa Monica Mountains has died while trying to establish his own home range.”

The cat was simply doing what comes naturally:  at a certain age, the male lions must find their own space.  The area above Santa Monica is saturated with the big cats right now, so it is difficult for a youngster to find his own territory.  If he had been able to find a suitable spot, with so many mountain lions prowling around, this often leads to a lack of genetic diversity and inbreeding.  Mountain lions usually turn back when encountering people or freeways, but often they are hit by cars and killed, or come in contact with a hiker with deadly results.

Sikich believes this mountain lion bedded down off of Second Street because he was lost.  He would have had to cross major streets and intersections, and walk by people both sleeping and awake to get to the center of town.  The Third Street Promenade, a major tourist and shopping center, was a block away.  When authorities tried to dart the cat and the sedative didn’t work, they felt the public was in enough danger to shoot and kill the animal.  Still, as many comments indicate on the Patch article, we will never know what might have occurred had the cat been saved and transported elsewhere.

May be we need to re-evaluate our compact with nature.  Here in Los Angeles, we live in such proximity to hills and mountains.  Urban growth mixes uneasily with the natural world that once occupied the space, and neither humans or animals are safe.  No one likes to see their beloved pets torn apart, and from the response this week, no Angelinos are comfortable with law enforcement gunning down lions and bears in their neighborhoods.

Police officers must have non-lethal weaponry on hand in their vehicles to use against animals.  As long as we continue to build into each other’s habitats here in Los Angeles, we will face this problem, and therefore, both animals and humans will be in jeopardy.  The only solution is to be better prepared for the next encounter.

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